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Derek Liecty’s Life in Soccer Led to a National Championship — and Drew Him Out of the Closet

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An elderly man sits in a large cushioned chair looking at the camera.
Derek Liecty at his home in Walnut Creek on July 13, 2023. Liecty was the first general manager of the Oakland Clippers, a short-lived soccer team that won the National Professional Soccer League championship in 1967. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

This story is part of the series 8 Over 80, celebrating artists and cultural figures over the age of 80 who continue to shape the greater Bay Area.

W

hen it comes to winning in the Bay Area, one could easily point to the Golden State Warriors, San Francisco 49ers or Oakland A’s for the seasons of parades, trophies and collective euphoria. But it was a little-known soccer club that claimed the region’s first professional national championship before any of those titans, becoming the most important team you’ve probably never heard of: the 1967 Oakland Clippers.

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Though historically unrecognized, the team’s success is largely predicated on one man’s vision for soccer expansion in the United States. Without Derek Liecty, it’s unlikely the team would have competed in the oldest national soccer league in the country — and they certainly would not have done so at the Oakland Coliseum.

At the time, the Clippers franchise was an idealistic start-up with hopes of growing soccer’s appeal in North America. As one of the 10 inaugural teams in the National Professional Soccer League, they were originally slated to play at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. With a pair of oil tycoons funding the organization, everything was in order for San Francisco to make a splashy debut on the national soccer circuit.

Instead, when the team’s owners arrived from Texas, Liecty, the Clippers’ general manager, shuttled them across the Bay Bridge to the then-brand-new Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

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“Have you been to Kezar Stadium?” asks Liecty, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday and maintains an active lifestyle in his Walnut Creek apartment. “The wind, the dreary sky, all of it stinks for soccer. I knew Oakland was the better choice for the Clippers, so I took them there instead.”

 

The gambit worked; it was the first of many notable imprints he would make on the Bay Area’s soccer world.

In their debut (and only) season, the Clippers — which fielded predominantly Yugoslavian and Costa Rican immigrants — would go on to bring Oakland, and the entire Bay Area, a national trophy. Shortly after, Liecty convinced Brazilian legend Pelé and his team, F.C. Santos, to play their first and only game at the Oakland Coliseum for an exhibition match against the Clippers.

Despite the team’s short-lived success, Liecty continued to devote himself to soccer — a man ahead of his time. He would go on to referee soccer matches in San Francisco’s inaugural Gay Games; he helped bring the World Cup to Palo Alto; and he has served as an international ambassador for the sport for nearly five decades.

A framed clipping from a newspaper reads 'A First... Clippers in Playoff' above a photo of shirtless young men celebrating.
A framed Oakland Tribune article about the Oakland Clippers’ 1967 season hangs on the wall at Derek Liecty’s home. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A California soccer story

Born in 1932, Liecty was raised by a single mother in Santa Barbara, where he began to play organized soccer at the age of 10. “I was bitten by the soccer bug early on,” he says.

In those years, organized soccer in the United States was underdeveloped and rudimentary compared to today’s standards. Still, Liecty says he was drawn to the international allure of the sport; his first coach was an Englishman and most of his teammates were from abroad. As a teenager, Liecty dedicated his extracurricular time to running an independent soccer team before enrolling at Stanford University in 1950.

The summer before he started college, Liecty joined the San Francisco Football League, a famed adult league designed to develop a grassroots pipeline for San Francisco’s best soccer talent — an active system dating back to 1902. Though many of the soccer pathways Liecty utilized are still around half a century later, the region has lagged in developing any momentum for professional soccer.

But for those in the know like Liecty, the Bay has always offered world-class potential for footie. While reminiscing on his playing days from a reclining sofa chair at the center of his tidy living room — his hair neatly combed, polo shirt tucked in, eyes looking off in a state of nostalgic reflection — he proudly rattles off a bevy of teams he once suited up for or played against in the area: Olympic Club, Mercury Club, Viking Athletic Club (“the most well known top-level team in San Francisco”).

He recalls his days as a center back: “The fields [back then] reminded me of a giant billiard table. A fabulous game that I loved to play so much. Up until then it was always soccer, soccer, soccer.”

An older man standing beside a book case holds a framed photo of a younger man walking on crutches.
Derek Liecty holds a photo of himself in 1952, when a broken leg kept him from participating in the Olympics. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Liecty played for Stanford’s squad until 1954, eventually becoming a captain, before breaking his leg during Olympic tryouts. Post-graduation, he served in the U.S. military for two years in Europe, later working in Chile for the American and Foreign Power Company. While in South America, he enrolled in a soccer referee academy — for fun.

When he heard rumors about the formation of the U.S.’s first professional, multi-regional league, Liecty reached out to an old acquaintance, William D. Cox — a flamboyant soccer visionary who was spearheading the National Professional Soccer League.

Cox hoped to kick off a California team in 1966. And so Liecty abandoned his 9-to-5 lifestyle to chase after the checkered ball once more as the general manager of the Clippers. It was a risky bet.

“The ’60s were wild,” Liecty says. “We had civil rights happening. We had the Vietnam War starting. We had the Black Panthers coming around. And Cox’s league was seen as a bunch of outlaws.”

According to Liecty, in those days FIFA (soccer’s international governing body) lacked any interest in promoting soccer in the United States and threatened to fine the league for its unsanctioned operation. In the words of Liecty, “Mr. Cox said ‘fuck you all’” and went ahead anyway, with Liecty steering the Clippers. And they won, defeating the Baltimore Bays. Though the league only lasted one full season, it established Liecty as one of the Bay Area’s earliest public soccer advocates.

An elderly man in a blue polo shirt stands on a balcony with trees behind, one hand on railing, other hand in pocket
Derek Liecty at his home in Walnut Creek. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Coming out after the Gay Games

Soccer has shaped Liecty’s path in powerful, life-altering ways. It was through soccer, and his role as a referee in the inaugural Gay Games, that he finally felt comfortable to publicly come out as gay. For his entire career until then, he says, “I was a closeted, gay soccer player.”

The Federation of Gay Games, founded in 1982, is an international series of Olympics-like events with an especially strong focus on LGBTQ+ and other marginalized participants. Liecty refereed the Gay Games’ first-ever soccer match in San Francisco, and continued volunteering as an organizer for years, helping to contract sports facilities. At his home, he shows me the lifetime achievement award he received from the organization and a promotional poster for the opening competition.

Those early years of the Gay Games coincided with the emerging AIDS epidemic, and its innumerable tragedies. For Liecty, soccer and the Gay Games not only helped create a sense of purpose, they also provided an outlet for the community during a time of trauma.

He discusses the complexities of queerness in sports, and tells me that the Gay Games were primarily focused on working in foreign countries as a form of civic outreach and to educate others about gay rights.

“How do you get parity? Not just with gender, but with race, economics?” he wonders. “I’m not sure, but people could be inspired by the Gay Games to do something different in their own countries. There has been some progress in the U.S., but we need it everywhere. South America is waking up to gay rights. Muslim countries are still struggling. We want to play a good part in it.”

A trophy, commemorative plaques and framed photographs sit on a white mantle with a colorful painting above
The Tom Waddell Award from the 2006 Gay Games sits on Derek Liecty’s mantle. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Liecty’s apartment is filled with commemorative pins, trophies, medallions and plaques. (He attended every World Cup around the globe from 1966 to 1994.) He shows me a photo of his younger self embracing a lover (next to a fast-looking car). In another snapshot of him, perhaps in his 60s, he’s suited up for a long bicycle ride (Liecty began bicycling as a serious hobby in his mid-life and has now toured over 40 countries). There’s a framed photograph of him and Pelé (casual). And the only official championship award the Oakland Clippers received after winning it all hangs in his office (next to a 1994 World Cup medallion).

Looking forward to soccer’s future

It’s awesome, in the most literal way, to see how Liecty lights up about the game. These days he doesn’t watch much of it on television, citing his dislike of how modern players complain and frequently stop the game, but he sees hope in the direction the sport is heading.

“Major League Soccer is progressing the right way,” he says. “They just signed Messi. We’re 95% there. Now we just need to get more kids playing year-round. I like the Oakland Roots and what they’re doing as well, starting small and building up from there.”

He knows what he’s talking about; the outsized influence of the Oakland Clippers can be seen to this day. Liecty mentions Don Greer, an Irishman whose passion for the sport got him hired by the Clippers as a full-time youth soccer coordinator. “Don became the genesis for youth soccer programs in the entire United States,” Liecty says. Greer helped the U.S. build its national Soccer Development Academy.

There’s also Clay Burling, a former insurance worker from Albany who attended every Clippers game with his six children because it was “the most affordable family event in town.” Burling ended up publishing a newsletter called Soccer West — now Soccer America, one of earliest and still active online outlets for soccer news — all from his East Bay basement.

Black and white framed photo of a soccer team, coaches and managers lined up on field, celebrating
A framed photo of the winning 1967 Oakland Clippers with Liecty on the far left. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

For Liecty’s part, those years gave him confidence and clarity — characteristics he fully exhibits to this day. It’s overwhelmingly evident that his connection to the game remains at once worldly and tender. Unlike today’s megastars, U.S. soccer players from Liecty’s generation scrappily committed to the game’s principled essence. With less money and less opportunities to go pro back then, potential footballers had to look elsewhere for income.

Now, he mumbles, “the U.S. Soccer Federation is fucked up.”

As factual as that may be, the actual concept of soccer is nearly perfect — if not in action, then as a beautiful abstraction, a sport of free-flowing passes and shared movement that offers so many life lessons. It’s a microcosm of the diverse, democratic, open-spirited globe that Liecty has been kicking for since he was a child in the 1940s.

Following our interview, Liecty shows me his collection of Toyota Supra cars in his garage, one of which he still drives around town in its gleaming coat of devilish red paint.

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He gives me a firm handshake, gets into his ride and starts the rumbling motor — then takes off without looking back.

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